Sunday, August 10, 2008

China - the winner or loser in 2008?

As we all witnessed this past Friday (08.08.08 at 8:08pm), the opening ceremony to the Olympics in Beijing, China, was a spectacle uncontested in its beauty, technology, and showmanship. Coming out of the newly built, energy efficient flower-shaped stadium, China showed to the world its new face and claimed its stake in the run to become a big player in international politics. With an economic growth rate of 7% (the highest in the world), China has proven to the world that economic development can come through an unusual political institution (in this case, a highly repressive, undemocratic one), throwing aside the theories of political economists that have been developing for the past century or so.

My question is this: can all of these theorists be THAT wrong? At what cost does China's political repression help it, and what consequences does it hold for the country? Is it worth the tradeoff?

I don't know much. But from what I've read and understood, China is on a dangerous path of destruction. I know this isn't what you're used to hearing about - every news channel, political scientist, and economist is claiming that China and India are the new world giants. But I have to concur with the papers I've read on this issue to say this: political institutions DO matter, and a repressive regime cannot go far without finally taking blame for its human rights violations and making right its dozens of wrongs. I don't know how long China will continue with its economic boom

A cause that I feel very strongly about is that of Tibet. For the past 50 odd years, Tibet has been facing what the Dalai Lama called "cultural genocide" by the Chinese. After the PCR staked its "claim" on Tibet based on ancient land holdings, Tibet has been torn by Chinese control and domination. Sure, the Chinese have worked on modernizing an otherwise backwards Tibet, but they've done this highly strategically: they've built malls and centers that are run by ethnic Chinese, created job opportunities for the educated (i.e., the Chinese), and created a modern railway line between Tibet and China which functionally only brings people from China into Tibet (the numbers are amazing - the train is virtually empty on its way to China, and EVERY car is filled coming into Tibet). As native Tibetan culture is slowly eradicated by the influx of immigrants, more and more Tibetans flee to India and Southeast Asia.

The biggest tragedy lays with the Buddhist monks, though. When the Dalai Lama had to flee under disguise to Dharamsala, India because he was considered a political enemy, thousands of monks left with him to India. Those that stayed behind are subject to torture, random imprisonment, and sometimes death. Chinese officials force monks to disavow their allegiance to the Dalai Lama and pledge it only to the Chinese state. When they refuse, they are beaten, tortured, or killed.

The Tibetan cause is a small one, but one that is very symbolic to me. How can we, as a global populace, be supporting and encouraging the growth and development of a nation so against everything that we supposedly stand for? (after the Afghanistan and Iraq, though, who knows what we stand for...) It frightens me that the Tibetan voice is so readily suppressed by the Chinese state and the the population is coming closer to eradication by a country that has no legal stake over its land. At this point, Tibetans have given up the hope of a free nation, but only ask for the freedom of cultural expression. As the Dalai Lama said in 2007, "what we demand from the Chinese authority is more autonomy for Tibetans to protect their culture."

As the world looks towards China in the next few weeks during the Olympics, I hope you will join me in looking away. Think about the voices that are unheard, the censorship of Chinese press, the oppressive regime that continues to kill thousands who speak up against the government and has put in place an institution that may not be far away from Stalinist policies. Tibet's Olympic team wasn't allow to participate in the Olympics this year, because it isn't recognized by the Chinese government as a sovereign nation.

The economic prosperity of China is one thing, but its politics of repression and autocracy is a whole different thing. So, again, the question remains if this nascent economic power will have the political strength to support its current developmental capabilities as the Chinese population becomes more educated, aware, and desirous for change.


EDIT: ok, so let me provide you with a more technical analysis of this, based on some of the comments I've gotten. I believe that the Chinese state doesn't have the institutions to allow all groups representation (a la PEIS 101). So basically, Chinese tools are largely repressive, and it's only up to a certain point that you can use them and maintain social peace.

They don't have the political institutions to deal with social unrest. As of now, they've channeled all their social tensions into nationalism (think: OLYMPICS) to hold together groups split by the experience of industrialization. The real question is, then, how long can that last.

A historical example comes to mind: the Soviet Union post 1970s. Between 1928 and 1970, the USSR faced economic hypertrophy, where it was growing at huge proportions to transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. After the 1970s, however, they didn't know where to go. Social unrest was increasing, there were diminishing marginal returns on their capital (they had picked all the easy economic fruits), and they weren't innovating because of the population stagnation. Could this happen with China as it finally outgrows itself?


Noel said...

Interesting points Meghana, but as a Chinese-born with an uncle who is a high government official in the Chinese government, an aunt who was in the Chinese army, and a grandpa who fought in the Chinese Civil War -- I do feel differently from you.
I don't agree with the policies of the Chinese communist government -- it's fucked up.

However, the Olympics mean a lot to the children of China -- I don't think it's right of you to critique the games in that way. When I talk to my friends and my cousins in China, they don't have much to dream about -- but at least they have the Olympics to be proud of.

If you're not going to watch the Olympics because of Tibet, at least understand that there's millions of children in that country who have never been so excited for their country ever before.

Meghana said...

Hey Noel,

I think you're absolutely right - I didn't mean to speak totally officially or imply that China's policies towards Tibet overwhelm the meaning of the Olympics to the Chinese people.

In terms of morale, I think the Olympics is doing its job by reestablishing nationalism and pride in the Chinese people and allowing them to realize that they are witness to a new era in history in which China will become one of the leading economic powers of the world.

My intention with this post wasn't to critique in a vacuum China's government or its population - I wanted to focus more than anything on Tibet as a policy that I see as illegitimate and unfair.

I also wanted to touch up on the importance of political institutions in economic development. Most papers I have read (for example, the best in its field: Acemoglu, Johnson Robinson (2006)), indicate that a government with a non-democratic political institution cannot maintain economic development at a heightened pace for a long period of time.

Hope this clarifies.

Introspectively Yours said...

Ms. Dhar, please read Milton Friedman. Economic Freedom will not necessarily result in Political Freedom. He says this in "Capitalism and Freedom"

Economic prosperity will continue despite China's political model because of its export driven markets and its shift towards an inward consumption model.

Also take, Vogel's Varieties of Capitalism class.


Meghana said...

Haha, I must admit I am not as knowledgeable as you. Hope my post didn't come across as pretentious.

But I've read Friedman, and I REALLY am no classical liberal, nor do I agree with his derivative economies. Open to interpretation, however.

Simran said...

hey meghana!
loved reading this and agree with you to a large degree.

I read a different opinion on China and freedom the other day and thought I would share:

The article/comments also raise an interesting point about the similarities of the cultural genocide of American Indians (or the violations in Guantanamo..) and that of the Tibetans, i.e. our political institution is not immune from human rights violations either because our rule of law just excludes oppressed groups.

By no means do these points justify Tibetan oppression, but I think it provides a little perspective.

In the end, it's frustrating because it’s obvious that the US and others should take action, but other interests (often economic) take precedence over human lives.

RollOnYueBears said...

The issues that you bring up are quite overwhelming for college students like myself. However, I think looking away will not help you find answers.

I suggest taking a trip to China and maybe your questions can be answered.

China's gone through different political models in the last century from classical Confucian dynastic model to Warlordism to Republicanism to Communism and now Socialism with "Chinese characteristics."

The Beijing Olympics is a demonstration to the world of its progress in the last 30 years since it opened its doors in 1978. It has progressed in ways far than just its international trade and GDP, but also in the improvement of lives and academic thought.

A "highly repressive and undemocratic political institution" is not the point of view of a person living in China. Similarly, an alien from outerspace may see the current US political institution full of repressive policies in the forms of laws. In China, there's no law controlling alcoholic consumption but there is here in the United States. In China, there's the "one-child-policy," and prior to Roe v. Wade here we have laws that make abortion illegal. It's hard to frame human rights when you're living in a different world. A right to one country may be a violation to another.

Liberators are seen by some as invaders. Moral relativism is something that I can't go too deeply into.

The politics of China are filled with contradictions and different cycles. Rest assured that the Chinese people will rid of their political model if they believed that there was something better for their current development. No one is a fool. If living indeed becomes repressive, there will be changes whether or not bloggers want them or not. The Emancipation Proclamation didn't come from pressure from other great nations such as the Britain, France, and Russia which had condemned slavery before the half way mark of the 1800s. The Soviet Union didn't collapse because of marchers in the streets of San Francisco although Langley may have been a reason. And China didn't end its Cultural Revolution where anarchy prevailed and everyday living essentially were halted because of the student marchers in France or demonstrators in Kent State.

The people will speak up for themselves, rest assured. We probably should focus on our issues domestically as we have many problems facing our great nation. The 9 trillion dollar debt, the oil crisis, and the shrinking of the middle class are signs of trouble for our country. And we're still the only developed nation without a national healthcare system. Perhaps a better question will be... how long will we last? How long will people realize that checks and balances are now compromised by forces beyond what they were intended. President Eisenhower touched upon the idea of the "military-industrial complex" in his farewell address. In fact, our voice and our rights may be shunned by reasons unbeknownst. Powerful lobbies that entangle local politics with national politics. Is your local congressman/woman receiving campaign contributions from powers you don't agree with?

In light of the recent conflicts in South Ossetia, it's also interesting to me that our government takes sides really without the consent of the people. Why do we automatically assume the position of an ally of Georgia. Does it stem from classical Cold War containment theory? Have we not learned anything from the World Wars that taking sides in other country's problems only lead to bigger problems?

Like I said earlier, most of these topics are extremely overwhelming and possibly outside the scope of college students especially when it's best that we continue to learn instead of taking positions.

But I have faith in the belief that people will seek the truth and when they feel that the current establishment is no longer supporting the everyday functions of living for its people. There will be change. I assure you there will be change.

Best and much respect,